Kentucky men’s basketball was without a starter. His freshman point guard was once again hampered by a back injury. His best player had been “exposed” in recent games defensively. His head coach is coming under increasing scrutiny. And preseason dreams of a Final Four run seemed laughable months later.
So of course the Wildcats, two-game losers in the Southeastern Conference, came to Knoxville, Tenn., and took it to Tennessee’s No. 5 and top-ranked defense on Saturday afternoon.
The UK, at least for a day, looked like the UK of old, shocking the Volunteers 63-56. He played with fire. Oscar Tshiebwe took over during key periods and was no liability in defense. CJ Fredrick led a 3-point effort that found some success against the best perimeter defense in the nation.
The result was the kind of win that, if the Wildcats (11-6, 2-3 SEC) find themselves in the NCAA Tournament and make a run, will be seen as the moment a dull season turned around.
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After the Vols (14-3, 4-1) raced to an 8-0 lead that seemed to presage the demise of the United Kingdom, Fredrick punched two 3s that erased the deficit and sparked an energetic effort from Kentucky the rest of the first half. Frederick scored 10 of UK’s first 15 points and the defense set up against UT. Then Tshiebwe, who until the last five minutes of the half had been held 0-for-2 in shooting, took over. The reigning unanimous player of the year scored eight of Kentucky’s next 11 points to turn a 20-18 deficit into a 29-23 advantage.
Tshiebwe hit a double-double five minutes into the second half to finish with 15 points and 13 rebounds, Fredrick added 13 points (3 of 9 of 3) and Antonio Reeves lost 18 with a pair of treys. Kentucky, facing a defense that allowed 20.9% on 3 starts, shot 31.3% from beyond the arc (5 of 16).
It wasn’t perfect. Tshiebwe got caught in the middle of defense more than once in the first half, and Tennessee’s big players attacked him in the second with weak post-ups; Uros Plavsic, a 7-foot-1 senior, had 19 points but grabbed just three rebounds. And the defense allowed the Volunteers to shoot 40.4% from the field and sometimes more than 50% in the first half.
And Tennessee clawed their way back into the game in the second half despite trailing nearly double digits at one point. Plavsic’s ability to back Tshiebwe cut the deficit, and Zaka Zeigler briefly gave the Vols a 43-41 lead midway through the half.
But any win, especially against a top-5 team, is welcome at this point for head coach John Calipari and a team that spent the start of the new year searching for answers.
Reeves responded with 14 points to put the Wildcats ahead 58-50 in the next seven minutes to lead the Wildcats to victory.
Kentucky is home next week for two SEC games, starting Tuesday at 9 p.m. against Georgia (12-4, 2-1).